This semester, I am living in Amman, Jordan this semester with SIT’s Modernization and Social Change program. I decided that I wanted to go somewhere completely out of my comfort zone rather than to a comfortable Western European country, and thus headed to the Middle East for my JYA experience. I have been learning Arabic at Vassar for nearly two years now, and I really wanted a place in which to practice the language and become more confident in speaking it. This post is a bit frazzled because so many thoughts are rushing through my head, so please bear with me.
My journey to Amman was certainly a long one, totaling over 21 hours and making stops in three different countries. Luckily, when I flew into Vienna, Austria, there were eight other students in my program who were on my same flight. It was comforting to know that I would be spending a lot of time with these people while I was in Jordan.
Once we finally arrived in Amman, we were eagerly greeted by the SIT staff who brought us to the where we would be based for three days. Despite being in airports and hearing many different languages, it had not really hit me that I was actually in Jordan until I got to the hotel. We were greeted by the hotel staff in Arabic and my mind was pulling blanks. (Keefik? Al-hamdulillah, shukran. Wa anta?- How are you? I’m very well, God willing. And you?) It was real. I was in Jordan, and I would be living here for three and a half months.
Fast forward a week, and I am much more comfortable here! I’ve moved in with my host family, and they are absolutely wonderful. My host mother (mama) is from Russia and my host father (baba) is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin. I also have a brother (akh) who is twenty-eight years old. My family speaks both Russian and Arabic at home, so I am certainly getting a linguistic experience.
We have classes from Sunday through Thursday (Friday and Saturday are the weekend), and the theme of my program is Modernization and Social Change. In short, we will be studying Jordanian society in the face of an influx of Western values and norms, and the unique ways in which the country has dealt with its own development. Topics of discussion could range from environmental issues to gender expectations to tribal relations and more. Our guest lecturers will range from leaders of NGOs to government officials. This will certainly make for very interesting lectures. I’ve found that while students at Vassar are interested in international affairs, few students have an in-depth knowledge of the Middle East. In contrast, I am currently surrounded by thirty other students who are deeply interested in the region and are passionate about learning more. Our discussions are always lively, and I’ve really enjoyed classes so far.
The possible conflict in Syria has overshadowed a lot of our activities here in Jordan. While Amman is far from the Syrian border, Jordan is currently overwhelmed with refugees from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. About half of the population of Jordan is registered as a refugee. This has placed huge constraints on Jordan’s economy, infrastructure (traffic is horrible), natural resources (Jordan is the third most water-poor country in the world), and politics. While Jordan has traditionally been very hospitable to refugees, its government and people can only handle so much.
While classes are exciting, the real learning has been happening outside of the classroom. My fellow students and I challenge ourselves everyday by speaking a language that we only marginally understand with taxi drivers, our host families, professors, friends, and restauranteurs. There are two registers of Arabic—FusHa and Amiyya. FusHa is an incredibly formal language that every foreigner is taught to speak in schools across the world, while Amiyya is the language as it is actually spoken. While the two languages are both Arabic, they can sometimes hold vast differences in both grammatical constructions and expressions. This has been a fun challenge to overcome and I can already tell that I’m learning a lot about both languages.
There is so much to do in Amman. The main touristy area is called Rainbow Street. While it clearly caters to foreigners, it still provides a fun experience. Yesterday, some friends and I gathered on Rainbow Street to watch a Lebanese documentary about student protests at the American University of Beirut. Along with watching films, one can purchase a falafel sandwich for less than a dollar, smoke argeela (hookah), purchase souvenirs, watch a soccer game, and eat lots of really good food. Of course, one can also go to any of the many souks around Amman such as Souk Jara and Souk Al-Abdali. These are great places to practice Arabic as well as bargaining skills! There are also many historical sites such as the Roman Amphitheater and the Citadel. Both are equally incredible and beautiful.
I’ve only been here a week, but I don’t regret the decision to study here in the slightest. Yes, I am constantly challenged with my Arabic skills, a little homesick for English and shorts, and frustrated with the dry heat and the presence of meat at every meal, but I’ve fallen in love with this city. The people have been incredibly welcoming and understanding of my Arabic skills, the food is delicious, and most of all, I’m being challenged in new ways and expanding my horizons beyond the Vassar bubble.
Until next time!